by Dan Sheehan
Dead Darlings is a series in which writers share and reflect on the darlings they killed— the text they cut from their work— along the way to publication.
"My first novel, Restless Souls, which came out in April of this year, is a tragicomic road trip-cum-war story set in the early-to-mid 1990s in Dublin, California, and Sarajevo. After spending three years under siege in the Bosnian capital, conflict reporter turned aid worker Tom returns to Dublin a haunted shell of his former self. His childhood friends Karl and Baz know they're woefully unqualified to help, but after losing Karl’s surrogate older brother Gabriel to suicide two years earlier, they’re determined to take some sort of action before that darkness swallows up another of their group. With all conventional options exhausted, the three embark on a journey for an unlikely cure, to an experimental PTSD clinic on the California coast called Restless Souls.
The first drafts I wrote of the novel, then somewhat portentously called American Eden, had more or less the same storyline and structure, but contained a kinetic central section set in Harlem and midtown. In those drafts, my wayward protagonists are still headed for the west coast; they just happen to find themselves with a two-day layover in the New York on their way there. After a while it became clear that however much I enjoyed writing them, and however well they worked as comic vignettes, the New York chapters didn’t really advance the plot of the book—at all. It was pretty painful at the time, not least because it reduced my page count by a third, but stripping this 100-page section for parts had to be done.
Looking back, I’m glad I spent so much time on that section because it allowed me to tease out aspects of my characters’ personalities and speech patterns and relationships to one another in a way that was ultimately very useful, but I don’t think that played into my decision to write it at the time.
I suppose I wrote the New York section for two reasons. The first was pretty straightforward: I had been living in the city for about 6 months and I felt like I knew the place (or at least that I knew Harlem, where I lived, and Times Square, where I worked) enough to write about it. I wanted to detail the rooftop of my building on 126th street where I went to smoke and listen to the rattle of the subway tracks after finishing a long night shift, and the parks I walked through on my way to the laundromat, and the godawful Irish bar in Times Square where I went looking for work because I didn’t know any better. Writing about these places was a way of asserting to myself that I had my feet under me in this new city, that I now knew a couple of things about New York and could write about those things with some semblance of authority.
The second reason was that I wanted to see what it would be like to have Gabriel survive; for him to be a living character rather than a ghost whose suicide haunts Karl. In a way, the entire New York section serves as an extended What If. What if Gabriel hadn’t spiraled into a depression from which he couldn’t find a way out? What if he had made it to America? What if he met a woman, fallen in love, had a child? What if his dream of creating a new life, of starting over, had been enough to sustain him though that dark period in his life? I felt a tremendous amount of empathy for Gabriel, and I wanted more than anything for there to be some salvation for him, but I also knew that the story demanded something else. So much of what motivates Karl and Baz to embark upon this Hail Mary trip stems from the death of Gabriel, and the guilt they feel for being unable to help him. Without that, it becomes a very different story.
Still, even though it could never have survived the editing process, writing this section allowed me to bring this exuberant, chaotic, big-hearted character that I had so much affection for back to life, to return to him what depression had stripped away, and for that alone it was worth the effort." - Dan Sheehan
From Restless Souls:
We spent two and a half more hours on that roof, mostly in hot, hungover silence. The dwindling stash of secret beers got so warm that the booze was almost bubbling in the bottles. Unfortunately, being the only liquid we had, we eventually gave in and threw back another few each while we waited to be rescued or, with any luck, die. The lads probably sensed that something was up between myself and Gabriel, given the way we were avoiding each other’s eyes, but no one had the energy to pry, which was fine by me. Every so often one of us would volunteer something helpful like “Christ, I’m fucking melting,” to help take our minds off the heat. The air up there was stale and suffocating and our smoke exhalations hung like comic strip thought bubbles over our heads, dissipating slowly into the bright Harlem morning. At 8:30 am Val, the angel, appeared from behind the pillar, shaking her head slowly from side to side, giggling through her slender fingers till we noticed her presence. We crammed the clothes back into our gear bags, bundled up the bedding in such a way that concealed most of the beer stains and burn marks, and swarmed her like a plague of affectionate zombies. She shook off our sweaty group embrace and led us, a pack of whimpering mongrel pups, back into the building to get ourselves cleaned up.
Knowing the state we’d be in, Val had sent Tina to the playground with the two little ones from upstairs before she came to get us. We showered and changed into whatever climate appropriate attire we had thought to bring, while Val and Gabriel cooked bacon and eggs in the kitchen. Every so often Gabriel would lean down and kiss the top of her head and she would smile up at him and lean into his shoulder while the food sizzled below. Somewhat miraculously, the lone bottle of Lucozade I brought over by way of a present hadn’t burst over the course of the last twelve hours and I tossed it to Gabriel as a sort of half-assed peace offering. You’d think I’d given him a Fabregé Egg the way he cradled it, a gleeful, all-our-troubles-are-over expression spreading wide across his face. Then came the agonizing decision of whether to down it there and then, in one blissful overdose, or siphon it off into daily espresso-sized portions so that this sweet nectar could last all Summer. Shockingly, having constructed an elaborately sealed Do Not Open box in which to house it at the back of the fridge, Gabriel gave in and gulped it all down with his breakfast ten minutes later. I tried to explain the significance of the drink at this rough early hour of the morning after the night before to Val, but the more I spoke the stupider it sounded, so I gave up.
“You lads want to come down to my pub later?” Gabriel asked, “I have a shift starting at 5.”
“I thought you said they fired you?”
“They did. This is my new place, or as I will be referring in to it from tomorrow onward, ‘that Times Square shithole I used to work in.’ ”
“What happens tomorrow?”
“Tomorrow I don’t show up for work because I’ll have drank the bar dry in an unsanctioned lock-in with my long lost brother and his mates the night before. I’ll also have stolen some furnishings and possibly pissed into the pockets of the pool table. That last one is still up for debate.”
“Seriously? Will you not get a bollocking for that?”
“Nah, sure there’s seven million people in this city, half of ‘em undocumented Irish. The crusty old fucker who runs the place pays me under the table and thinks my name is Marty Morrissey. Soon as I’m gone I’m gone. Even if he did track me down, what’s he gonna do? Tell the cops one of his dozen illegal immigrant, non tax-paying employees took advantage of his trust?”
“You don’t feel bad for leaving him high and dry like that? Or high and piss-drenched as the case may be?”
“Trust me,” Gabriel said, “a couple of hours observing how the Goblin treats his employees and you’ll be advocating gasoline and a match over piss.”
“I thought Times Square was supposed to be all junkies and prostitutes,” Baz says to Gabriel as he settles himself at our end of the bar.
“Ah it was, Barry, it was, and God be with those days. Well, maybe not God, but you know what I mean.”
“Not really, Gabe, no.”
“When I arrived it was still this sprawling grimy swamp of a place. Scared the shite out of me first few times I walked through. All dodgy sex shops and run-down theatres and lads who’d put a knife to your throat for the change in your pocket.”
“And that was a good thing?”
“Well, no, I wouldn’t say it was a good thing as such. I mean, I’m glad for the clean-up just like everyone else, but this fucking Disneyfication that Giuliani is presiding over, all those giant flashing screens you saw on your way in, the ‘jumbotrons’ as they’ve taken to calling them. I dunno, it’s sapping the character from the place.”
“Hard to sell that kind of character to tourists though,” Tom says, scanning the décor of the bar, which I’ll get to in a minute.
“True enough. You know what it is? I don’t think I realized the degree to which the whole fucking world loves musicals and huge neon signs. Two things I personally cannot abide. I mean, I’m almost as repulsed by the wailing little shits queuing up for overpriced Beauty and the Beast tickets as I am by the trench coat brigade who stop in here for a drink or five before heading across the road to the wank booths. You’d think there’d be a happy medium between Disneyland and Sodom they could all agree on? Bloody pendulous nonsense is what it is, each group plugging the other’s idea of hell. Not that it’s a fair fight mind you. In five years time every last one of the smut peddlers and crack heads will have disappeared and there’ll be nothing but chain restaurants, souvenir stands, and epileptic seizures as far as the eye can see. You mark my words. In the meantime, I have to pour pints for sex offenders in a bar decorated by the Lucky Charms leprechaun. Such is life at O’Leary’s Bar and Restaurant.”
“And who are these gentlemen, Martin?” The kind of wheezing, disembodied voice that makes us all shudder in unison. A man—the Goblin I assume—has appeared from behind Gabriel’s back, squinting across the bar at us, his left hand raised over his head to clamp down on my brother’s shoulder. “Friends of yours?”
“This is my brother, Mr. O’Leary,” says Gabriel, shuddering out from under the old man’s grip, “Sean Óg. And these are two friends of ours, John Paul and Finbar.”
We nod our wary hellos.
“Well you’re all very welcome to O’Leary’s, boys. Will you be purchasing any refreshments this evening or are you just here for the conversation and, eh, storage?” His beady eyes narrow on the stack of bags at our feet. If John Wayne in The Quiet Man, and Mr. Burns from The Simpsons had a mumbling love child, it would sound like this man. He smiles to himself, smacking his lips together, and I stare at the liver spots that run from one tuft of white hair to the next on either side of his shrunken head.
“I’m just taking their orders now, Mr. O’Leary.”
“Well you might think about doing it with a little more speed, Martin. You have other customers, you know.” He gestures to a rumpled gentleman sobbing into his shirt sleeve at the other end of the bar. His flat pint still full in front of him.
“Eh, yeah, I’ll keep my eyes open.”
“You will indeed. And we need you to cut more limes for the evening rush. Don’t have me say it again now.” Gabriel doesn’t respond to this and the two stand in silence staring at one another while we scratch the backs of our necks and look anywhere else.
“Here,” the old man says finally, opening a drawer and taking out a bunch of clicky top pens, “hand these out to the customers when they come in. I want to see every person in this bar with an O’Leary’s pen in front of them from now on.”
With one more sneer in our general direction, the old man shuffles away towards the stairs. On his way there he stops a pretty Eastern European waitress in her tracks and dribbles an instruction into her ear. Gabriel looks at this in disgust, and hands us three pens, one each. The clicky top is a tiny green leprechaun hat. He cleans his ear with a forth, and then dumps it, along with the rest, into the trash can beside him. There’s a contemplative pause while he pours three pints of Guinness and leaves them to settle.
“So, he seems nice.”
“Doesn’t he though? One of God’s own.”
“What’s his story?”
“The Goblin? Came over from Cavan in the 1950s and hasn’t been back since. Owns five other Irish bars in New York alone. He eats and drinks and shits and sometimes sleeps in his bars, so they tell me. He wears suits like that one, bought cheap in the late 60s. His ever-diminishing eyesight, hearing, and mobility mean that there are an increasingly limited amount of things he could spend his fortune on, even if he wanted to, which he doesn’t and never will, the stingy fucker. Now with Times Square getting all tourist-friendly, he’s cut this place to look like a ‘genuine Irish pub,’ as you can plainly see.”
‘Kiss me I’m Irish’ and ‘Pog ma Thoin’ plaques hang deliberately lob sided on the wall to our right. Above the mirror behind the bar, a cartoon Leprechaun with a pot of gold in his arms descends a wooden staircase bannister, arse first, underneath a gilded banner that reads ‘As you slide down the bannister of life, may the splinters never point the wrong way.’
“Tasteful,” I say, my eyes double taking at the sight of a huge hunting rifle fixed horizontal below the banner, “but what’s with the gun? I’d be fairly certain we don’t have those swinging from pub walls back home?”
“Tip of the iceberg, Karl. You should see what he’s packing below in the storeroom. This one’s just for decoration, allegedly, but the old bastard has enough firepower in this place to hold up half the island. He’s an NRA nut from way back, probably around the same time his dick went soft now that I think about it. Sometimes I see him sitting alone down there, cleaning his guns and talking away to himself about ‘readiness’ and the ‘ghetto uprising.’
“Oh yeah. God help any poor black fella who wanders in here looking for directions at the wrong moment. I haven’t decided yet if he’s legitimately losing his marbles, or just laying the groundwork for his dementia defence. Either way, I won’t let Val come within an ass’s roar of this place.”
“That,” says Tom, “sounds like a wise course of action.”
The sullen wait staff wear bright green t-shirts with the words ‘Top O’ The Morning’ emblazoned across the front. On the large back wall, between two cape-sized Irish flags, there is an enormous picture of the Goblin standing in a field, presumably somewhere upstate scouted specifically for its resemblance to a patch of the auld sod. Next to that, a mosaic of someone who couldn’t possibly be the deceased IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands, because no one could have rendered so tasteless a likeness without immediately destroying it. No one would have placed a smiling, clearly well-fed pre-imprisonment Sands, in the same medieval jail cell that Dracula housed Jonathan Harker.
“Is that,” Tom starts.
“Yep,” says Gabriel, delighted that we’ve spotted this.
“Does he realize—”
“Who the fuck knows?”
“Yep. Nothing, and I mean nothing, is sacred around here. If he can use the ghosts of republican martyrs to help him swill piss water to ex-pats with burnt off taste buds then he’ll do it without batting an eyelid. If the diddly-aye fetishists need a place to sing Danny Boy and toss each other off, he has a function room available at a competitive rate.”
“Sounds like an entrepreneurial soul,” I say, the first slug of stout cool and hoppy against the back of my throat.
“He sounds like what he is, which is a crotchety, racist old shitebag.”
“Any chance he’ll be dead soon?”
“Ah I can’t wish death on him, Baz, that would not be a very Christian thing to do at all. Auld lads like that can live one hundred years on spite and bile alone anyway. He’ll probably outlast us all. No, all I want for my kindly employer, all I pray for in the hours I’m forced to stand clapping my symbols together behind this sticky fucking bar, is total, house-bound incapacitation. Preferably the drooling, incontinent variety that requires the round-the-clock attention of a nurse Ratchet type. That’s not too much to ask, is it?”
“Seems reasonable to me,” says Baz.
“I have this daydream, right, where he’s stretched out, fully paralysed, on the bar, watching me dole out his money to a line of little black orphans and lesbian small business owners and Planned Parenthood volunteers—an Uilleann pipe version of God Save the Queen blaring from the sound system above his head. It takes a surprisingly long time for the whole thing to play out though, ends up consuming a large chunk of my day. So for the last couple of weeks I’ve just been attempting to make him spontaneously combust with my mind. That’s what I was at there a few minutes ago during our little staring contest.”
“Ambitious,” says Tom over my snort, “but I’ve heard it’s possible. Spontaneous combustion would most likely result in death though.”
“Ah in my version he just gets the arse roasted off him and then appears back the next day, suitably chastised, but alive enough to suffer through it all over again.”
“Sort of a Prometheus type scenario then?”
“Well these are dark times, Tom. They require extreme solutions. I’ll administer the people’s justice for the first few months. Then, when they’ve learned the technique, I’ll put Nadia or Fat Jimmy or Fake Seamus in charge of doling out the punishment. They hate the Goblin even more than I do, Nadia especially for reasons I need not detail. They’re all mad at me today because I told them I was leaving is the only thing. I promised then jobs at the new place when I have it opened but we’re still months away from that and, no more than myself, these flaky fuckers only operate on a week to week basis, you know? Sure Fat Jimmy could drop dead at any moment.”
“Who’s that,” I say, pointing across the bar to where a bug-eyed woman in her mid-forties is using a clipboard to explain something to Nadia. The waitress looks thoroughly pissed off, her angular face fixed in a scowl. The older woman is jittery, on the brink of mania even. She’s grinning spookily now, and the grin is making her face crinkle and twitch. Her red hair is tied back in a tight ponytail and, despite clearly being a manager of some description, she too wears one of those ill-fitting, radioactive t-shirts.
“That,” he says, “is Maggie O’Leary. Maggie had some sort of life outside these walls back in the 80’s—I think she taught English in Italy or Spain or something— till the Goblin threatened to cut her out of the will if she didn’t come home to take over the day to day running of this Hiberno hell hole. Now she lives alone in Queens with her three yappy dogs and skips in here every night to grin like the fucking Joker at the staff and tell everyone to cheer up. Meanwhile it’s always two minutes to midnight on her nervous breakdown clock. We had to stick an Out of Service sign in front of the jacks last week because she had locked herself in a stall, wailing gibberish and hammering her fists against the door for a full hour. I was convinced she was about to off herself.”
“Ah Jaysus,” says Baz, “the poor woman.”
“Don’t feel too sorry for her now, Baz. You want to see how that cow fires people around here, the tiny slips of students especially—the young ones too frightened to talk back.”
“Serious?” I say, “That woman? She looks like a strong breeze would knock her down.”
“It probably would. Doesn’t mean she can’t be a poisonous bitch though. She’ll skin you with her tongue if she thinks you’ll suffer it. And God forbid any blacks or Latinos are fool enough to walk in looking for jobs. She’s her father’s daughter there, make no mistake about it.”
“Still,” says Gus, “it can’t be pleasant, having your aul lad blackmail you into giving up your life.”
“No one forced her to give up her life, Baz, whatever that entailed. I mean, that old bollocks didn’t have her extradited and manacled to the bar. It was pure greed that brought her back here. She hates the sight of this kip as much as any of us, more probably, but she can’t leave till the Goblin dies. The problem is, as I’ve said, the Goblin is proving remarkably resilient and Maggie has recently realized that her prime spending years may well be behind her. Not to mention her prime dating years. That’s what’s really driving her up the wall. Nadia over there is fifteen years younger and getting her master’s degree in Business at night school and, most importantly, getting married in a month’s time.”
“Ah shit,” says Baz.
“I was gonna go chat her up?”
“You were in my hole,” I say.
Tom laughs quietly into his glass as he raises it to his lips.
“I fucking was. After this pint I was gonna go straight over there and introduce myself,” he says, holding up the dregs of his Guinness as if to say ‘look how close I was to making it happen.’
“Well we’ll never know now will we.”
“I suppose not.”
“Sure there’s always Maggie, Baz,” Gabriel says, pouring himself a discreet shot of whiskey and blocking its disappearance from all but us, “she’s actually very nice once you get to know her.”
Nadia and Maggie look up, startled, at the sound of us laughing and slapping our palms down on the wooden bar. Gabriel quickly sets up another round of pints and clacks exaggeratedly at the cash register, releasing the money drawer to retrieve change for bills never given. Maggie turns warily back around. Soon the sobbing gentleman gathers his coat and gives us the room. Outside the sticky heat of the day is broken by thunder, and a heavy blast of rain. Maggie retreats to the office to find her father. Nadia hisses a flurry of consonant-heavy curses in her mother tongue as she strides toward us, her dark eyes zeroing in on the bottles lined against the mirror. The bar now dark and empty, all five of us sit silent; watching the rain pelt against the frosted glass windows, listening to the loud ticking of the shamrock clock high above our heads.
Restless Souls is now available from Ig Publishing.